[Editor’s Note. This guest blog is by our friend David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle, and this review initially appeared in that newspaper and on its website at SFGate.com. We are grateful to David for letting us reprint it. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle
Playwright Luigi Pirandello would have had a field day with "Cinema Verite," HBO’s fictionalized docudrama airing Saturday night about the making of "An American Family," loosely considered TV’s first reality show.
Filmed in 1971, "An American Family" followed the Loud family of Santa Barbara in their day-to-day activities for 12 episodes, which aired two years later on PBS. The family included husband Bill, who owned a mining equipment firm; his buttoned-up wife, Pat; and their kids, Grant, Kevin, Delilah, Michele and the oldest, Lance, who was (gasp) flamboyant, lived at New York’s fabled Chelsea Hotel and spoke like a road show Blanche DuBois.
At the time, TV viewers accepted everything they saw in "Family" as "real"–from the most mundane details of the family’s day, to Lance parading extravagantly around the outskirts of the Warhol crowd, to Pat’s eventual decision to leave Bill. But we look back at the series now with an entirely different viewpoint: that of a TV audience long accustomed to suspending disbelief (sort of) when watching contemporary reality shows, many of which are about as real as an old episode of "Bewitched."
In a broad sense, there is no such thing as reality on TV. Even in a documentary, not to mention shows like "America’s Next Top Model" and "The Apprentice," reality is manipulated the minute an editor subs one shot for another.
So what is TV reality, then? In our time, reality means a bunch of bratty 20-year-olds getting drunk in a shared house, or has-beens going through rehab, or weather-beaten suburbanites eating insects on desert islands–all of it, to one degree or another, very obviously set up.
Back in 1971, producer Craig Gilbert and his filmmakers, Alan and Susan Raymond, set out to document the lives of an everyday American family. Viewers may have subliminally understood that reality was somewhat altered through editorial choices, but they more or less accepted what was on their TV screens as life as it actually and naturally happened.
But was it? That’s the question posed by "Cinema Verite" directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini as they look back at "American Family."
Did Gilbert direct the Louds’ actions to make his film more dramatic? In "Cinema," Gilbert (James Gandolfini) is shown inserting himself into a scene and telling the family what to do. We also see the Raymonds (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) revolting when Gilbert begins to cross the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, perhaps because he’s developed a crush on Pat.
In fact, when I first saw the film, I was bothered by Diane Lane’s performance as Pat: way too "Hollywood," way too "acted." But re-viewing the original "American Family," I couldn’t help seeing that Pat herself was "acting" in almost every scene–something that never occurred to me back then–and that Lane is icily spot-on. Never mind Pat’s propensity for wearing Jackie O sunglasses, indoors and out, at all times: Because she was not an actress, it’s startling and obvious to see her frame each line of supposedly casual conversation as if it had been scripted.
In "Cinema," Bill (Tim Robbins) is shown "re-taking" a reunion with the family after a business trip. But in the original documentary, you can’t help noticing that he’s entirely aware of the camera almost all the time. Of course, the real Lance (who died in 2001 of complications from AIDS) played shamelessly to the home audience, but his siblings managed to hold onto a bit of credibility, for the most part, except for the boys when their band was covering Rolling Stones songs.
What makes "Cinema Verite" evoke Pirandello’s "Six Characters in Search of An Author" is that we have a contemporary feature film that purports to be a documentary about how reality was altered during the making of another documentary 40 years ago, leaving us to consider what is real and what isn’t.
Does your head hurt yet?
If so, it’s meant to, and that’s the thought-provoking genius of "Cinema Verite." To complicate things even further, a handful of re-created "Cinema Verite" scenes supposedly in the original film were not, in fact, in "American Family." When Pat visits Lance (Thomas Dekker) in New York City, he takes her to La Mama for a Warholian play featuring Candy Darling. In "Cinema," Pat bolts from the theater. In "American Family," she sticks it out and belittles the play only after the show to Lance and his roommate.
Because TV today is awash with so many slickly deceptive reality shows, there are moments in "Cinema Verite" that are not unlike looking at cave drawings after taking in a Rembrandt show.
Yet, while seeing the original film adds a fascinating dimension to the HBO film, it isn’t mandatory: Even without the original source material, "Cinema Verite" offers provocative insight into how far we’ve become lost in the reality-TV wilderness in the past 40 years.